Protests Mount over LAPD Shooting of Infant
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Here in Los Angeles, controversy over a police standoff that left a 19-month-old girl and her father dead. Susie Pena and her father, 34-year-old Jose Raul Pena, were killed by SWAT officers on Sunday after a fierce gunfight. Officers say Pena was using his daughter as a human shield as he shot at them. At a press conference yesterday, the toddler's mother, Lorena Lopez, offered an impassioned defense.
Ms. LORENA LOPEZ (Mother): (Through Translator) He was the best father I've ever known. He had a great love for his daughter. He stayed with here while I was at work. He was a good man. He would read to her.
BRAND: The Los Angeles Police Department has seen more than its share of controversy in recent years, and once again officers are defending themselves against accusations of excessive force.
Joining me now is Constance Rice. She's a civil rights lawyer and co-director of the Advancement Project, a public policy and legal action group in Los Angeles.
Ms. CONSTANCE RICE (Co-director, Advancement Project): Thank you.
BRAND: So the situation is eerily familiar to many Los Angeles residents. Police repeatedly have to explain themselves to angry residents about their excessive use of force. What is different in this case?
Ms. RICE: This is a continuation of a very dysfunctional dynamic between poor communities and the police. What's different about this is that you have an El Salvadoran-American, Central American immigrant community enclave in South Central that is reacting to police use of force in the same way that poor African-Americans do. That's different. If you look at the reaction, for example, to the Guatemalan-American and Guatemalan immigrant and Central American immigrant community in Rampart Division, where you had the last police scandal, where you had gangster cops planting evidence and so forth, the community stuck with the cops; they didn't have any problem with the abuses. And so the Central American immigrant community does not have the reaction of poor African-Americans because the history is different.
BRAND: Let's listen to how the LAPD defended itself yesterday at a news conference. Assistant Police Chief George Gascon spoke about the shooting.
Mr. GEORGE GASCON (Assistant Police Chief, Los Angeles Police Department): The suspect is the one that committed a criminal event. The suspect is the one that prompted what occurred here. And I think it's very important that we do not confuse sorrow with any indication that we believe that our officers did anything wrong.
BRAND: So will that wash with residents? Will that be taken seriously?
Ms. RICE: What's interesting about this is that there ought to be a little more room to consider the mistakes, if any, and the judgments or misjudgments, if any, on the part of the police, and an assumption that when cops go into rescue a baby and a 17-year-old from a crazed man with a gun who's shooting at the neighborhood that there ought to be a little more identification with the circumstances that the officers are facing. They're going in to try to save you. And the question is: Why can't the community wait for an investigation and at least give a little goodwill to say, you know, `They were trying to save the baby and the daughter'?
BRAND: Well, Connie, let's go back a little bit and if you could tell me why the community would have that immediate negative reaction and not give the police even an inch of reasonable doubt.
Ms. RICE: You're seeing the history of LAPD. The community's not looking at a single use of force; they're looking at 80 years of abuse. LAPD has had a very glorious history of being a paramilitary police force, the Marine Corps of policing. It's effective, but it's suppression containment. And cops will tell you, `We're the thin blue line. We're here to contain chaos.' When you have that kind of policing, and we in LA have demanded that kind of policing, it has created a 60-to-80-year history of baggage. You can just name the names. And that's dangerous, because it keeps the community from seeing this incident for what it is, evaluating it on the facts, trying to see whether the judgments the officers made were reasonable. There's just no room for the normal process because it's loaded down with the baggage of LAPD's history.
BRAND: Constance Rice is a civil rights lawyer. She's also the co-director of the Advancement Project, a public policy and legal action group in Los Angeles. As a lawyer, she represents both community members and police officers.
Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. RICE: It's good to be with you.
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